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Why I Don’t Hold Hands at Mass

As a boy at Catholic grade school, I learned that the church building was a holy place. It was God’s home. Men took off their hats when they entered, women covered their heads, and almost everyone wore their best clothes. When it was necessary to speak privately, everyone did so in hushed tones. It was a matter of respect.

Mass was a time for interaction with God. Upon entering the church, people knelt in prayer as they waited for the universal ritual to begin. This Mass was a vertical proceeding between the priest and God, with the rest watching on or engaging in their own vertical communication, through prayer. Today, in many churches, this vertical proceeding is being converted into a horizontal one, where the interaction between the people is the primary focus instead of the interaction between God and man.

The beginning of this transformation of the Mass came with turning the altar around to face the people and the abandonment of the Latin Mass. This was done to involve the people more directly in the Mass—a laudable goal, but it had an unfortunate side effect. By giving people more to see and understand, these changes took away some of the opportunity for people to offer their silent prayers during the service. The horizontal relationship between the priest and the people infringed, albeit slightly, on the vertical relationship between God and man. The changes did not end there.

The handshake of peace is a formal recognition of the community’s role within the Mass itself. As a limited element of the Mass, this ritual is not objectionable. Unfortunately, in many churches it is not a limited element. As James Hitchcock of St. Louis University explained, in some churches, this (horizontal) ritual of the handshake—which “barely exists in the official liturgy”—has become the climax of the Mass. If the horizontal relationship has not trumped the vertical one, it is at least coming close.

I first felt that the line had been crossed in what might seem to be a minor matter. Having entered church prior to Mass, I was kneeling in prayer when an usher politely, but loudly, asked the congregation to move to the center of the pews, in order to make room for more people. As an occasional usher myself, I understood the situation that led to this announcement. Still, I thought it inappropriate to disturb everyone’s prayers when individual requests, quietly whispered, could accomplish the same result.

I think the priests of my childhood would have instructed the usher to handle the situation differently the next time. Unfortunately, at least at my church, the interruption of pre-Mass prayer has been formalized. Shortly before the service, the song leader now asks everyone to stand up and greet those around them, “especially any visitors.” With this new ceremony, it is impossible to continue kneeling in prayer. Even if one is willing to risk being labeled as unfriendly or unneighborly, the chatter and raised voices make concentration (hence prayer) very difficult. It becomes necessary to interrupt the vertical communication (“Sorry God, gotta put you on hold”) and engage in horizontal glad-handing.

I have nothing against being friendly, but I am unaware of a single instance in which this interruption of pre-Mass prayer has resulted in a new friendship—or even an invitation to coffee. It also seems to me that this encouragement to make new friends would be better placed at the end of the Mass, along with the other announcements that are always made. This would lead to better interaction, as people could continue their conversations after leaving the church. This would result in less interference with pre-Mass prayers. Interference with prayer, though, seems not be much of a concern today.

Even in those prayers that are an official part of the liturgy, “community” influences are coming into play. At my church, it started when extraordinary Eucharistic ministers and song leaders began holding hands during the Our Father. Soon members of the congregation began following their lead. Recently, at a Christmas Mass, the priest encouraged everyone to join hands, even to reach across the aisles, so that the whole congregation would be joined together.

So what is wrong with a congregation adopting a more horizontal view of the Mass if it brings people together? In short, plenty. As Hitchcock says, such a shift can create “severe damage” to “the liturgy and to the whole religious psyche of the people.” If Christ is present due to the community of the people, “there is no sacred place in the church. It’s just a meeting place.” This results in a kind of “practical atheism” in which God is not seen as the great transcendent Creator of the universe but as something to be found in other people (or not at all).

This issue was the focus of one episode of “Nothing Sacred.” This defunct television series was set in a Catholic church that had a soup kitchen in the basement. The soup kitchen often seemed to be more important to the priest than the Mass itself. At one point in the episode I watched (the only one), the priest said that what was being done in the soup kitchen was what gave meaning to the religious services upstairs. Saving souls took a back seat to fighting poverty.

When the Church becomes a social organization that seeks primarily to perform charitable and community acts, it can lead to two bad results. The first is that people will be separated from the Church due to political issues. Hitchcock points to the liberation theology that has taken root in Central America. When priests begin to preach out of the newspaper instead of the Bible, people come to realize that there are better sources for the news than the Church. There are also better social organizations. If that is the case, why bother with God and religion? It may be easier (and even better) to become involved in secular charities.

On a smaller scale, my church now has a social action committee. I agree with all of the goals: less hunger, an end to poverty, less suffering from war and crime, care for children, better education. Over the past year, I have not signed any of its petitions because I almost always disagree with the political solutions endorsed. Some of the solutions, I believe, are actually counter-productive. I do not like this committee speaking for my parish, as it implies that we all agree, as if it were a matter of the Catholic faith. (Sometimes, as Pope John Paul II has made clear, political solutions set forth in the name of the Catholic faith are actually in opposition to the Church’s teachings.) As such, these pronouncements on matters of politics can drive some people away from the Church.

The second, greater risk that stems from the Church becoming merely a social organization is that it can drive a wedge between people and God. After all, when the message from the pulpit is that the only matter of importance is helping others, why is God necessary? People can be motivated to be good citizens without relying on God. Many excellent charitable organizations have no connection to religion. People of all faiths, and those of no faith, do charitable work or give financial support to them. There is, of course, nothing inherently wrong with such organizations. When the person-to-person relationship takes priority over the God-to-man relationship, though, an organization ceases to be a church.

In his 1959 manuscript Why I Left the Ministry and Became and Atheist, G. Vincent Runyon reviewed his decision to leave Christianity. He.aspired to “high ideals” but sought to place “emphasis on man and the problems of this world, rather than the golden streets in the next.” He did not want to turn away from charitable work, but he no longer saw a reason to communicate with God. He decided to seek “a godless church or religion.” In other words, he wanted a purely horizontal church. (For others seeking such a church, he recommended the Unitarian Church.)

Sadly, as the Catholic Church looks more to the community, it seems to be looking less towards God. Maybe all that is happening is that the Church is bringing the Christian faith into a more relevant context, but the emphasis should always be on God. My fear is that the Catholic Church, at least in America, is focusing on the community at the expense of the Almighty. This is being done with the best of intentions, but somewhere a line must be drawn.

The handshake of peace, the turning of the altar, and the abandonment of the universal language are all now well established as part of the Catholic tradition in America. Other intrusions on the communication between God and man are not. I think it is time to draw the line and return the focus to God.

Outside of church, I will continue to support and be involved in my favorite social and charitable organizations. I will contribute money and my vote to political organizations that reflect my values and outlook. In church, I will recite the Our Father with my hands folded and my heart in communication with God. Perhaps others will do the same.

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